Group programming assignments: what students say about their setup and grading

When including group assignments in our courses we, as instructors, must take several decisions: should we assign the student teams, or should we let the students decide who their teammates will be? Should we be monitoring the projects’ source course repositories? How (and if) should we identify and act upon slacking members? Should we give all team members the same grade, or should we differentiate and, if the latter, how?

From prior research from the education domain, we know that work and grade equity concerns negatively impact students’ attitudes toward working in a group, and that the setup of group assignments greatly affects their success in terms of group performance, learning, collaboration patterns, and member accountability. We recognize, however, that programming assignments in computer science education have some unique characteristics: students enter our courses with very diverse levels of prior programming experience, which could impact team formation and work distribution. Practices like pair programming could affect collaboration and accountability. Moreover, while in other types of course projects the only data available to the instructors are the project deliverables, software projects can expose their process data through the source code repository or through tools such as the recently presented GitCanary.

In our study, we wanted to focus on what the students had to say. We interviewed 20 final-year bachelor’s and master’s students from four universities about their experiences on group programming assignments of varying group sizes and scopes, in which they have participated throughout their studies, and about their perceptions on assignment setup, grading and monitoring.

Assignment Setup

Students discussed three specific aspects related to assignment setup: the team formation policy (where a distinction was made between self- or instructor-assigned groups), the group composition and its influence to group work, and the degree of instructor involvement in their work strategy.

The interviews revealed that large differences between team members’ prior programming experience, skills, and commitment are considered problematic. The self-selection of the team composition was found to have advantages and disadvantages, such as missing the education value of new groups, as expressed by a student: “so of course I’d like to select them myself, but I think there’s definitely some advantage to the instructor assigning people, because then you need to work with different people and it’s actually a pretty important skill”. It was also identified that high-skilled students tend to stick together: “Um, and also, the ones that are really the ones that are really productive, they tend to find each other and they just stick to themselves.”

Grading Strategies

The analysis indicated three grading strategies experienced by the students: being assigned the same group grade, being assigned individual grades that are determined by the instructor, and grade distribution determined by the team, with perceptions about them varying greatly. Students also expressed perceptions on the meaning of the grade and the grading factors for programming assignments, including coding efficiency and skill, code functionality, and quality.

While having all team members receive the same grade was recognized as not always being fair, differentiating between the grades team members get was also found to be challenging for several reasons, one of which is that team members collude on what they present, as a student expressed: “I think it’s very difficult for a teacher to know how much work the people do, so they decide, we also decide in our group how we’re going to present things to the teacher. Um, so a lot of the time teacher just doesn’t know what’s also true.”

Independently of the grading strategy, transparency was identified as a requirement by several students. As one of them advised us, “be really transparent about how you decide what they’re graded for, even at all. Like what are the factors? Is the teamwork, is it the quality of your code? Like what are you looking at? Uh, and then in the end, explain their grade.”

Monitoring team contributions

Several practices for monitoring team contributions were discussed. Their advantages and disadvantages are summarized in the table below.

The source code repository was thought to be a good indication of member contributions, but challenging in finding representative metrics, as one of the students expressed: “it’s a really difficult subject, and that is the biggest flaw in the automation. You have to determine what is good and what is always good,” and the always good might not apply to most metrics, such as lines of code. The source code repository was found especially useful for identifying members that contribute too much, as well as slacking members: “you can review the amount of commits and the amount of lines, but I think if you do that, it’s only to see whether someone did nothing. So you can easily separate the bad apples.”

Students form all four universities described at least one experience when they had to write a report on the contributions of themselves and other team members. Students thought that this practice of peer reporting could be useful but is susceptible to colluding team members and is ineffective in informing on slacking members because of social consequences and lack of incentive. When the individual reports are not openly shared between the team members, it also lacks transparency, as one of the students expressed: “it’s also not nice failing someone without giving them a valid reason. Cause you can say, ‘yeah, but you didn’t do as much.’ They can ask ‘according to who’ and if you can’t answer that, then you’re taking away the reason that they failed the course.”

So what is the takeaway?

Advantages and disadvantages were identified for all described practices for setting up monitoring and grading group programming assignments. Now that we know them, we can consider them side by side with the reasons to implement a programming assignment as a group project in the first place. For example, is it for practical reasons of scaling to the large number of students? Then the advantages of the self-selection of the team and of assigning individual grades, while enforcing several practices for monitoring contributions, would outweigh their disadvantages. Does the assignment aim to support the students in learning through collaborating with others, or to increasing the students’ collaboration skills? Then maybe having instructor-selected teams and assigning the same group grade, together with less competitive monitoring strategies such as regular group meetings or presentations, would allow the members to focus on the project, get a group feeling and self-organize, without focusing on each member’s contributions.

Independently of the applied strategies, we should stress the need for sharing beforehand the grading criteria, as well as for transparency and feedback, requirements that were recurring in the interviews. It can also be valuable to be transparent to the students on the overall aim of the group assignments, clarifying for them whether and why aspects such as their collaboration skills are being evaluated as well.

Are you interested to know more? Read the full paper.

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